American comic books in the last ten years have become a much more mainstream field of interest, mostly due to the popularity of their recent celluloid successes. Though characters such as Batman and Superman have been with us now for over seventy five years, and are as readily recognised even by non comic book fans by their symbolism and deeds, their popularity before the movie adaptations was nowhere near the stratospheric levels they have now reached through their cinematic endeavours.
Superheroes are now en-vogue and comics as a medium are now more widely accepted than ever as a legitimate and serious form of story-telling. Of course it wasn’t always this way, I have been collecting and reading comics since I was six years of age and have lost count over the years of the amount of times I have had to defend my choice of escapist literature to the non fan. Even with the rise in prevalence of Superheroes in recent years, I still tend to get the typical, “but comics are for kids!” speech whenever I mention my love for the medium. This situation though has improved, again mainly thanks to the introduction of well loved characters through their filmic personae. Now more people than ever are buying and reading comics and actively sharing their love of a new found hobby with friends and family, without feeling any kind of shame in the admittance… geeks and nerds are now de-rigeur.
With the Marvel cinematic universe going great guns and DC Comics’ upcoming series of shared universe movies, beginning in 2016 with “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” the American Superhero has firmly established itself in the public conciousness.
But what of its British counterparts?
British comics differ greatly from their American brethren, though have endured since their introduction in 1937 with “The Dandy”. Dandy was a long running children’s comic (third longest running after Detective Comics and Action Comics) and introduced characters such as Desperate Dan and Korky The Kat. Following shortly after in 1938 was “The Beano” and presented the world with the arguably more famous (than their Dandy counterparts) Dennis The Menace, Minnie The Minx and Billy Whizz.
These early comics were invariably aimed at the children’s market, and followed a format that is still primarily used today in the UK comic scene, the anthology. Several stories would make up each individual issue, introducing us to a plethora of characters in quick two or three page adventures, perfect at the time for the short attention span of children. The Superhero archetype was still the domain of the American market at this time, and it wasn’t until 1950 that Britain conjured up its own variant with the classic sci-fi hero “Dan Dare.”
In April of 1950 a new kind of anthology comic hit the British newstands “Eagle”, differing greatly from Dandy and Beano, it focused on more sophisticated storylines and much more intricate artwork. It was the very first issue that introduced us to one the UK’s most popular and enduring heroes in Dan Dare, though the stories themselves were set in the future, the dialogue and mannerisms were very reminiscent of old British war films, Dare himself was described as “Biggles In Space.” The quality of the art really set Dare’s adventures apart from his competitors and was the first UK comic to use the centrefold ‘splash-page’ style of approach to represent its galactic action sequences. Dan Dare endured in Eagle in its initial seventeen year run through to 1967, he has returned like the proverbial phoenix several times in not only the relaunched Eagle in 1982, but also “Virgin Comics” where he was penned by the great Garth Ennis, and of course his legendary run in Britain’s most popular comic book “2000 A.D.”
2000 A.D. continued the long tradition of the anthology comic that was ever popular in the UK, its first issue (known as a prog in the UK) was released in February of 1977 and introduced the British comic fan to new and exciting heroes hitherto unseen in a UK publication. The opening line up of characters included “Harlem Heroes” a strip that was heavily inspired by the 1970’s explosion of Kung-Fu movies, American basketball sensations Harlem Globetrotters and violent future sport flick Rollerball. “M.A.C.H-1” the story of super-powered British secret service agent John Probe that took cues from James Bond and The Six Million Dollar Man, and “Flesh” an ultra violent tale about time travelling cowboys heading into the past to harvest dinosaurs for their meat, a story that presented me personally with one of my all-time very favourite non human protagonists “Old One Eye.”
2000A.D. has become the most widely read and circulated comic-book in British history and has delivered some of the most original and fascinating characters ever conceived in the world of the Superhero. As the publication became more in demand, new characters were added to the fold with the likes of Johnny Alpha “Strontium Dog” who found fame after being transferred to 2000A.D. after his original home publication “Starlord” was cancelled. “Rogue Trooper” the blue skinned genetically engineered soldier of the future and the “A.B.C Warriors” a team of war robots who are able to withstand atomic, bacterial and chemical warfare.
Many other heroes and villains have since been presented in the pages of this hallowed publication, and we will touch upon each of these in more detail as this series continues. Of course conspicuous by his absence in this initial line up is the UK’s arguably most popular character of all-time, the grimly determined lawman of the future “Judge Dredd.” For many reasons Dredd didn’t make an appearance in the first ‘prog’ of 2000 A.D. his initial debut came just one short week later in Prog#2, and firmly cemented his place in comic-book history.
In our next instalment of “Great British Comic Book Characters” we will be looking at the rocky start to 2000 A.D. and its most famous export Joe Dredd… stay tuned, and as Tharg the Mighty would say “Splundig Vur Thrigg”